For the second time in the last three years, Virginia starts its NCAA Tournament run in PNC Arena as a No. 1 seed.
The Cavaliers are hoping to make it a longer run this year, and they claim they have the experience of the last few years, the talent and the mindset to make it happen.
UVa (27-6) plays 16th-seeded Hampton (20-10) at 3:10 p.m. Thursday. The winner of that game will play the winner of the matchup between No. 8 seed Texas Tech (19-12) and No. 9 seed Butler (21-10).
Despite the seedings and the knowledge that a 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers aren’t approaching their in-state opponent lightly.
“You know, that’s a crazy stat,” said UVa fifth-year senior forward Anthony Gill, a third-team All-ACC pick this season. “It’s something that we can’t take for granted at all, because if you guys remember in the Coastal Carolina game (in 2014) when we were a No. 1 and they were a 16, they really gave us a close game and really gave us a run for our money. We have to be ready from the start. It’s just something that we can’t take any team lightly. That team is just as hungry as we are to try to win the national championship or go as far as we can.”
Hampton, for its part, is eager to become the first 16th seed to break through.
“I feel this year anyone can be upset, honestly,” Hampton graduate forward Quinton Chievous said. “Look at No. 1s (in the polls) this year that have fallen. … ESPN said this could be the year for No. 16 to upset No. 1. We got to come and play and be prepared and focused.”
Added Hampton senior point guard Reginald Johnson, “This year I think it’s been the most combined losses for combined No. 1 teams in NCAA history. It kind of goes to show you it’s up in the air, even though they’re a No. 1 seed and we are a No. 16 seed.”
However, Hampton coach Buck Joyner cautioned, “We also talked about how it’s easier said than done. You have to go out there and perform because Virginia’s going to perform.”
Virginia, led by its big three of ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, Gill and point guard London Perrantes, are the common denominator of the Cavaliers’ three consecutive NCAA Tournament bids.
UVa coach Tony Bennett thinks his Cavaliers are better prepared for the vicissitudes of the tournament because this season hasn’t gone as easily for his team.
“I mentioned this before,” Bennett said. “Because we’ve lost some tough ones early. We haven’t been able to live off of our success as we had in the past, winning the conference (regular season) and conference tournament. We came up short in both. … I think that’s really taught us how close to the line it is. And I just think we’re healthy right now, and we’ve played some tough games and certainly respect Hampton in knowing you’re got to be right in this thing to advance.”
Brogdon, a 6-foot-5 combo guard, has been the key for the Cavaliers. He not only leads the team in scoring at 18.7 points per game to rank third in the ACC, he was also named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, the first ever sweep of the individual honors in the league.
“He’s played like a beast,” Gill said. “He’s been a matchup problem all year.”
Brogdon has been named a first-team All-American by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and The Sporting News, with more honors likely to follow.
What impresses Bennett are the strides Brogdon, a fifth-year senior who missed his original sophomore season with a broken foot, made this year.
Bennett said the injury made Brogdon appreciate the game more. “It’s humbling and you don’t take things for granted,” he said.
“Rarely do you see a player of his ability in his last year, in his fifth year, improve as much as he did,” Bennett said. “He already was a first-team All-ACC player, efficient, good stats. But he’s really gotten better this year with his movement off the ball. His leadership I’ve seen on the court, but verbal leadership in practice. (And) guarding the ball, rebounding.
“He’s a guy that works. He’s really driven. I’ve coached a lot of guys. He’s one of the top two or three I’ve ever seen that is driven to make his game better in the offseason and during the season.”
For his part, Brogdon said the individual honors are a measure of the team’s success and an overdue acceptance by basketball observers of Virginia’s deliberate style of play and defense-first mentality.
“First, I think it’s a testament to my coaches, to my teammates,” Brogdon said. “We all celebrate things like that, individual accolades.
“I think a lot of people criticize the program, criticize our style of play and criticize Coach Bennett for how we play. You know, we’re very methodical; we play a slower-paced game, but this system can produce very good players.”
He added, “We’re not apologetic in the way we play. We take pride in the way we play. There’s a lot of good in the way we play, and that results in wins. And as long as we’re winning and as long as we stay true to our identity and who we are and our character, we don’t really apologize to the naysayers.”